CSEDU Day 1, Opening Panel, “Shaping the Future Learning Environment – Smart, Digital and Open?”

Only 32 papers out of 250 were accepted for the conference as full papers (12.8% acceptance, highly respectable) and were identified as being of “outstanding quality” – good work, PhD Student T and the CSER team! After the opening address, we went to the first panel, chaired by James Uhomobihi and Markus Helfert. The four keynote speakers are also on the panel but I’ll add more on them during their sessions.However, in summary, we had an academic, a maths instruction evangelist, a psychologist and a representative of engineering society bureaucracy (not as bad as it sounds). Everyone was saying how happy they were to be in Barcelona! (And who can blame them? This is one of my favourite cities and should be on everyone’s bucket list.)

Larissa Fradkin: “Mathematics Teaching: Is the future syncretic?”.

From Wikipedia: Syncretism /ˈsɪŋkrətɪzəm/ is the combining of different, often seemingly contradictory beliefs, while melding practices of various schools of thought.

Everyone was asked to give a position statement, which is a different take on panels for me, very interesting. Larissa had slides and she identified the old problem of the difficulty of teaching mathematics, alluding to the US mathematics wars. Are MOOCs the solution? We were promised a great deal yet much of it has not yet appeared. Well, Coursera materials appear to be useful, or useful in principle, but they don’t work in some classroom so they have to be localised. What is the role of the faculty member in this space? It’s a difficult question and the answer depends on time, teacher interest and student sophistication. We inherit the students that our preceding teachers have produced so text books and curricula have a big impact on the students that get turned out, if educational resources are presented in an unquestioned way. Trudging through exercises and content is one way to get through but what does it do? Does it teach? Does it prepare students for tests? Texts and resources are often, despite what publishers and authors claim, unaligned with the curriculum.

Schmidt’s last study (ref?) shows that quality teachers and quality materials are the top two considerations for inhaling student learning. We can produce well-crafted eBooks and MOOCs with editable and updatable content to give a flexible product – but the “rush to market” product doesn’t meet this requirement. The cognitive tutor was mentioned as AI-enriched educational software, under John Anderson’s model, but they are incredibly difficult to develop. There are tools out there that combine cognitive psychology and AI, CIRCLE and AutoTutor. However, most tool development is driven by psychologists and cognitive scientists rather than discipline experts and this can be a problem.

The speaker finished with a discussion on a semi-traditionalist semi-constructivist approach to rigorous instruction that required much less memorisation, focusing on conceptual understanding and developing more master than a straight constructivist approach. (Not quite sure of the details here but this will be extended in a later talk.)

Erik de Graffe gave his first slide from tomorrow on Team Learning in Engineering Education, starting with the statement “people are not born to work in a team”, which is an interesting statement given the entirety of human society. Students do like working together but the first meeting of the group can be challenging and they don’t know how to start. (Is this a cultural artefact based on the isolation and protection inherent in privilege? Time to get our Hofstader’s cultural dimensions hats on because this sounds a lot like a communal/separate categorical separation.) Erik noted that “team” is a word for animals harnessed together to apply more force in one direction – which is not what we want in a human team. (Although this is perhaps another cultural insight). Erik’s second statement is that communication is highly inaccurate: cog scientists estimate that the amount of information we process from the potential information around us is less than 1%. Most of the information that reaches our sense are ignored and yet we still make decisions. (Given I’m listening to the speaker while summarising another discussion and some slides, I’m wondering if this is the best way to express this while not identifying the difference in task focus and activities that are relevant to the task at hand.) Erik believes that on-line will make this worse. (I really need to go to his talk to see the evidence and caveats in all of this.) Erik then projected his own behaviour in on-line meetings and low attention to the general case – if Erik is in a meeting with you, get him to leave his camera on or he will be off making coffee. 🙂 Erik then moved on to virtual identities that allow people to do things in the alternative reality that they wouldn’t do in real life. Urm. I need to see the talk but this all seems a little dated to me but, hey, what do I know until I’ve seen the talk?

The next speaker, Steve, asked us if we shut the door while teaching (I don’t usually unless the noise get stop bad because it improves air flow, rather than for pedagogical or privacy reasons) but segued into a discussion on openness. Steve then referred to the strange issue of us providing free content to journal publishers that we then pay for. (I wrote a little something on this years ago for SIGCSE.) Steve then referred to the different time in closed and open access journals – the open access journal was “in print” in four weeks, versus the 18 months for the closed access, and the citation counts were more than an order of magnitude different. You can also measure the readers in an open access format. Open access materials are also crucial to scholars – Steve licenses all of his materials under Creative Commons so you can use his work and all you have to do is to acknowledge the source. When you open your content, you become an educator for the world. If people need education, then who are we to not provide the materials that they need? When you become an open scholar, you must prepare for criticism because many people will read things. You be also be ready for dialogue and discourse. It’s not always easy but it is very valuable. (I agree with this wholeheartedly.)

The next speaker, José Carlos Quadrado, President of IFEES, tries to infect people with good ideas about Engineering Education as part of his role. Is the future learning environment smart, digital and open? Talking about smart, an example is the new smart watch, a watch that is also a phone or linked to a device – what do we mean? When you have a smart phone, you have approximately 1.4 tons of technology from the 1980, which makes us wonder if smart means leaner? When we are going digital is this replacing paper with silicon? How do we handle factual authority when we have so much openly available where the traditional peer review and publishing oversight mechanisms are eroding and changing rapidly. (Another slightly creaky perspective although with a great deal of self-awareness.)

Teaching and learning tools have changed a great deal over the same time but have our pedagogical approaches also changed or been truly enhanced by this? There were some pretty broad generational (X vs Z) comparisons that I question the validity of. The notion that students of today couldn’t sit throughout this session is not something I agree with. Again, the message from the panel, with a couple of exceptions, is pretty dated and I have a bit of an urge to get off a lawn. Oh, and we finished with an Einstein quote after a name drop to a famous scientist. Look, I accept a lot of the things that are being said on the stage but we have to stop acting as if natural selection works in 18 months and that the increasing sophistication of later generations is anything more than an ability to make better choices because more and better choices are available. Oh, another Einstein quote.

I realise that I have started editorialising here, which I try not to do, but I am being bombarded with position statements that are leaden in their adherence to received wisdom on young people and those smart young. These issues are just clouding the real focus of the systems that we could use, the approaches we could take and the fact that for every highly-advanced Z Westerner in a low power-distance, highly self-centred approach, we have 100-1000 Pre-X non-Westerners in a high power-distance and communal environment.

We’re in question time. Erik asked about the ship analogy – when ships were made of wood, men were made of iron, and by moving to iron ships, we weakened people. Erik then went on to the question “Do smart phones make stupid people?” which basically nails down the coffin lid on all of the problems I’ve had with this opening. Steve, in response to another question, raised the connectivist argument for networking and distributed knowledge storage, which smart phones of course facilitate. Sadly, this foray into common sense was derailed by some sophistry on young people trying to be smart before they are clever.

There was a good point made that Universities will continue to be involved in quality education but they are no longer the bastions of information – that particular ship has sailed. Oh, there we go, we’ve dipped down again. Apparently we have now changed the way we buy things because we are now all concerned with perception. People are buying smart phones, not because they are smart, but because they want instant gratification. Generation Z are apparently going to be the generation that will reject everything and walk away. Eh, maybe.

Perhaps I shall come back to this later.



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